a source on Armenian Art



A casual visitor to Armenia does not usually contemplate too long about what to see. There seems to be an unspoken, but much cemented itinerary that suits just about everyone around – the locals, the guides, the mini-bus drivers and the tourists themselves. You can see an extraordinary, 5000 year old cross-section of Armenian history and culture in about three days without venturing more than 100km from Yerevan’s radius. It’s what the locals call “Garni-Sevan” – a route used to describe all the tourist clichés in the country.

One route however is generally avoided: an almost straight, unwinding road towards north. The flat expanses of valleys and shallow river-beds are an anomaly in a country known for its extreme ruggedness and harshness. The road parallels the course of Akhurian River, which forms a natural border with Turkey. In about an hour and a half it takes you from Yerevan to what used to be known as Armenia’s northern capital – Gyumri. That name alone is reason enough for most people interested in sight-seeing to avoid taking it. For nearly twenty years, Gyumri, or as it was known during Soviet Union – Leninakan – was synonymous with one of the biggest natural disasters of twentieth century – the 1988 earthquake that killed over 30 000 people in about two minutes.

I experienced this tragedy first-hand in 1988, although not in Gyumri. The tremors were felt throughout the country and I can still see the pen on my school desk jumping up and down from the quakes. You didn’t have to go up north to see the horror; all you had to do was watch the television and the faces of shell-shocked adults who were coming back from Gyumri after digging up bodies from the rubble. The tragedy was not simply limited to the loss of human lives. Everyone seemed to mourn the loss of the city itself, which many considered to be not just the most beautiful in Armenia but one of the prettiest in all of Soviet Union.

I avoided going to Gyumri, like many other diasporans and expatriates precisely because it seemed like revisiting an old nightmare that was too close for comfort. But by 2006, the tremors seemed like a distant echo and I decided to finally explore this legendary city.
On the approach, you’re immediately conscious of the fact that Gyumri is unlike any other Armenian city and it is first of all due to its geographical position. While most Armenian towns and cities are built around natural enforcements, such as mountain slopes, riverbeds and even gorges, like the southern cities of Goris and Kapan, Gyumri is spread flat on the Shirak plain, which is almost completely devoid of hills. This has allowed for an unusually (for Armenia) balanced ground plan, with wide, grid-like street systems, which come as a pleasant surprise after the intolerable clutter of Yerevan. Once you get off at the bus interchange the striking contrast of the hideously deformed marketplace on one side and the symphonic beauty of the restored Dzitoghiants house on the other, hits you in the face. It’s akin to being stuck between two time-frames: a constantly mutating present and a nobly beautiful and idealistic past which perhaps never existed in the first place. So what of this past?

The region itself has been populated for many thousand of years. The settlement is known by name since Urartian times – Kumayri – a name that has reverberated through time remarkably unchanged. But the city as we know it today was truly born after Eastern Armenia became part of the Russian Empire in 1804 during the Russo-Persian wars. It was nominated as the capital of Erivan province and after the visit of Czar Nicholas I in 1837 was renamed Alexandrapol in honor of his wife – Empress Alexandra. Nicholas was in Gyumri to inaugurate a massive military fortress, which still dominates the city from a nearby hill.

As a result of Turkish-Russian wars, many Armenians relocated across the river Akhurian from the neighboring city of Kars (which also used to be Armenia’s capital city in the 11th century). Kars was renown across the Middle-East as a city of craftsmen and builders. The exquisite silverwork, carpets, clothes and furniture made in the city traveled far and wide around the region and the small number of these masterworks that survive to our days, still dazzle with their astonishing inventiveness and beauty. The émigrés from Kars immediately set to build a new city out of mostly black and red tufa found in the Shirak region. With the increasing emphasis placed on Alexandrapol as a strategic defense point, the city quickly became a key trading centre in Trans-Caucasus, trailing only behind Tiflis and Baku in importance. Even after Yerevan superseded it as the capital of Armenia, Gyurmi continued to grow and develop, becoming a major industrial and cultural centre with a population that reached 250 000 by early 80s. But its glorious march through history was cut short in 1988.

Gyumri is one of the cradles of Armenian modern culture. It is the place from where many noted artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers were born and formed. Just a few names will do: poets Avetik Isahakian and Hovhannes Shiraz, filmmakers Mher and Albert Mkrtchians, sculptor Sergei Merkurov, composer Armen Tigranian and even the mystic Gurdjieff. Most of them moved later in life to Yerevan, Moscow and other cities across the world, but all of them carried the undeniable stamp of their birthplace throughout their lives.

What makes this city so special, so powerful in its presence and distinctive influence? My immediate impression of Gyumri was that of an indestructible cultural topos – a nearly autonomous entity that seemed to have a wholly unique set of customs and traditions, not to mention the bullet-proof fecundity of the local dialect. It made anyone who opened their mouths instantly exotic, funny and otherworldly, making me feel a foreigner in my own country. The rough, at times even ugly textures of the local dialect come as a strange contrast to the rarefied elegancy and impeccable taste that graces Gyumri’s architecture. And this is one aspect that I want to focus on primarily – the face of the city.



After seeing the complete, by-the-hour destruction of Yerevan’s historical ‘visage’ – I stood stupefied at the sight in front of me: whole streets crowned by 18th and 19th century facades, ingenious apartment complexes from the tragically brief avant-garde period of 1920s, five churches and even a magnificently ominous “black” fortress. I anxiously looked around for signs of the devastating earthquake - rubble, homeless people, caravans and the all too familiar signs of ‘modernisation’. Not a single high-rise in sight; even the ugly ‘American-style’ shop-fronts with their ridiculous English names spelled in Armenian letters were kept in check. As we walked through the city, the devastating traces of the 1988 earthquake were still gaping at us through the empty sockets of windows and enormous cracks in walls. The crowning jewel of the city – the church of Our Saint Savior – was the most potent reminder, with its upper half completely gone. But the church and many of the buildings clustered around the main square were in the process of active restoration – a stark contrast to the situation in Yerevan. But even more amazing was the fact that over ninety percent of Gyumri’s historic strata had withstood the earthquake where practically all the post-1950 buildings had not. The repulsive tastelessness of rabid Soviet urbanization with its unstable multi-storey apartment blocks had been wiped off. Was this some kind of poetic justice? A forced clean-up by Mother Nature demanding respect for its power? It’s a power that the nameless master-builders of Gyumri understood instinctively and through experience. The region’s seismic volatility was well known and the houses were built with careful consideration of the inevitability of the disaster. The innate showmanship of Gyumretsis, their love for spectacle and colour never seems to have overwhelmed their sense of measure and harmony. While each and every house is considerably different in scale and style, all the buildings are seamlessly coordinated to create an architectural whole. It helps, of course, that the main building material is tufa – generally of darker colour.

If Yerevan was known as the ‘pink’ city for its use of pink and ochre tufa, Gyumri is certifiably ‘black’. Despite the darkness of the palette, the city is anything but Gothic. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more cheerfully looking ‘black’ city. The overriding atmosphere is one of drama and playfulness. The black stones enhance the intensity of strategically placed red and orange plates. In addition, the buildings are predominantly horizontal and never more than two stories high, which together with their exceptionally large gates and windows creates a charming rhythm, a sense of openness and light that makes one think of the dark masses of Florentine palazzos. The considerable size of most of the houses in the historical center hints conspicuously at the economic prosperity of the town’s middle classes before the Soviet revolution. Each house would be comprised of numerous bedrooms (sometimes up to twenty) and drawing rooms and would inevitably include a stable, winery, workshops and enormous basements all built around a large yard framed by a wooden veranda. However, by the beginning of 20th century, many of the numerous business owners had begun separating their living quarters from their prosperous businesses, hence the profusion of distinctly European-style housing quarters around the main square, which would not be out of place in Berlin or Moscow.

This is also characteristic of vernacular architecture in Yerevan, with the significant exception being the attention given to the façade of the houses. In Gyumri, the façade carried the all-important mark of class hierarchy – the more opulent and elaborate it was, the more prominent and prestigious its occupant.

But what makes Gyumri’s architecture so special, not only within Armenia but in the whole of Caucasian region, is the extraordinary mélange of seemingly diametrically opposed styles that somehow defy concrete definitions. Due to its very multi-ethnic make-up, Gyumri achieved a cosmopolitan face that was at once very local and very global. Besides the Armenian population, (which was also comprised of true locals and émigrés from Kars and Erzrum) Gyumri also had substantial numbers of Russians, Greeks, Turks, Georgians as well as German and French citizens who were often employed in the capacities of teachers or schoolmasters. As an important trading post of the Russian Empire with one of the first railway systems in the whole region, the city received a lot of cultural traffic and was inevitably shaped by the equally powerful influences coming from West and East.

Architecturally this is evident in the distinctly Oriental planning of the buildings with their centralized networks coupled with the benevolent influence of Armenian Rennaisance architecture from the nearby ruins of Ani. In fact, this most famous of Armenian capital cities is the direct prototype for Gyumri. From its grid work-like planning and predominant use of stone as building material to the central architectural ensemble of the Church of our Saint Savior (an exact replica of the Ani’s cathedral) Gyurmi has ingeniously appropriated Ani’s heritage as its solid foundation into which the city’s citizens could incorporate a plethora of rapidly changing tastes and fads without radically altering or damaging the city’s unifying look (that would come much later with the insane building developments of the Soviet government).


The fads were often brought in by the Russians or visiting Europeans, although one should also consider the work done here (and in other cities of Trans-Caucasus) by a number of professional Armenian architects who were actively imported from Moscow and St Petersburg by the richest portion of the upper-class population. Of particular note are the elaborate wooden verandas and balconies which became a staple of urban architecture not only in Gyumri and Yerevan but also, even more prominently in Tiflis and Dilijan (a resort town north of Lake Sevan). The general simplicity and grace of the early 19th century building were livened by the use of contrasting stone plates and a variety of inventive window panes. But this restraint soon gives way to opulence by the end of the century. The long-lasting craze of Art Nouveau decadence that was so overwhelming in Russia, soon trickled down to Gyumri. The local businessmen who traveled widely across the Russian empire were heavily fashion-conscious if their houses are anything to go by. Within a few years whole street blocks were built in the new style.

But Art Nouveau had its origins in the Orient and the twisting, swirling feminine line of this neo-Baroque style was not alien to the Armenian masters who had long perfected the technique of meticulous floral/animal patterning and semi-abstract design. Indeed, it’d be hard to imagine anything more elaborate than a large Armenian cross-stone or a bridal silver belt from Karin. But this new ‘European’ style was at odds with the heavy lines of the traditional architecture. The local craftsmen and carvers avoided a jarring contrast by sheer restraint. The decorative motives were used sparsely, mainly on the gates, doors, windows and cornices. In some cases, the styles become completely blurred, simultaneously combining neo-classicism, Russian Ampir and Art Nouveau with a distinctly local sense of colour and scale. Of particular note is the exquisite ironwork that graces many of the gates. The local masters were renowned for it in the whole of Russian Empire but unfortunately their skills and trade secrets are fast disappearing.

After the Soviet revolution, Gyumri continued to evolve and change rapidly. The devastating earthquake in 1926 gave the Soviet Armenian government all the more reason to ‘modernise’ this city of “kulaks” (derogatory reference to rich business owners). Gyumri also changed its name, from Alexandrapol to Leninakan (meaning Lenin’s city). While it did not suffer the kind of fundamental overhaul that met Yerevan in the early 20s and 30s, Gyumri did become a kind of hotbed for experimental styles. It was a time of enormous cultural activity as the country begun rapid reconstruction and ideological transformation. Gyumri’s architecture reflects these changes with some striking examples, although many of the buildings from this period were subsequently demolished or destroyed by the 1988 earthquake. Architects such as Chisliev, Tamanian, Mazmanian and Kochar implemented everything from Art Deco to Constructivism, although great care was taken to stay within certain parameters in order to preserve the unifying look of the city that was achieved in the past century.

In many ways, Gyumri-Leninakan was closer to Alexander Tamanian’s ideal of a garden-city than Yerevan ever came to be. With its wide boulevards, generous green zones and very active café-life, Gyumri was markedly different to Yerevan’s increasingly industrial profile. Culturally the city continued to flourish. Its theaters and art schools were considered to be the best in the country with many home-grown talents subsequently becoming key representatives of Armenian culture.

But the growth of the population was not beneficial to the intimate scale of the city and from 1950s onwards whole new suburbs rose from the outskirts widening Leninakan’s parameters by nearly ten times. The fact that the city was built on a major fault line was well known, yet countless high rise buildings were popping up like mushrooms. The footage shot on the morning of December 7, 1988 shows how these 10-12 storey buildings crumble down like stacks of cards, burying thirty thousand people within them. Further investigations revealed that most of these constructions were poorly planned and were built with insufficient quantities of cement and sand. According to some sources, nearly 80% of Gyumri’s buildings were destroyed. That would basically mean, every single high-rise apartment block, as today, there isn’t a single one on the city’s horizon. In contrast, most of the 19th century houses remained standing… not surprising… considering that they were built to last.


So what is Gyumri’s place within Armenian society and culture today? After being stripped of its status in 1988 as an industrial and cultural center, Gyumri and its citizens have fought long and hard to put the broken pieces back. Of course the old Gyumri has now disappeared forever into the folds of history and the jagged puzzle that is left in its place has too many missing pieces to make a complete picture.
Nearly twenty years after the earthquake, the city still shows its wounds with either half finished or half ruined buildings, an occasional caravan still perched on a street corner and a generally shaky infrastructure. While it would be easy to blame the incompetent government, corrupt officials and fate, this is not the place to elaborate on the reasons behind this shameful neglect.
The reality is that the possibilities of Gyumri’s future development are immense and entirely achievable.
Even during this time of crisis the city proved that it was an independent cultural entity. In late 90s the very first Armenian commercial art gallery was founded in Gyumri, paving the way for many similar businesses in Yerevan. The city is also home to the only Armenian Arts Biennale founded in 1997 which has enjoyed tremendous international acclaim. The three theaters, which were such pivotal cultural centers throughout Gyumri’s history, remain active despite the insurmountable difficulties. It also has one of the rare operating cinemas in Armenia – the neo-classical “October” theater built in 1924, which has been wonderfully renovated recently.
Then there are the museums. All seven of them. Clustered around the city center, the museums provide a truly authentic experience, which is much more intimate and pleasurable than one would expect. The largest by far is the Museum of Architecture and Ethnography, situated in the magnificent ‘Dzitoghiants’ house. The exposition is remarkably rich, giving a complete sense of the daily life of an upper-class family, as well as highlighting the exceptional mastery of the local craftsmen.
Right next door is the house-museum of famous Soviet sculptor Sergei Merkurov. Of Greek heritage, Merkurov was born and educated in Gyumri and subsequently became one of the most important monumental sculptors in USSR. The iconic statue of Lenin that used to grace the central square in Yerevan is his work. His home-museum doesn’t have much in terms of his work, but it does posses a remarkable collection of original death-masks by Merkurov, which are being displayed for the first time ever. The eerie feeling one gets from the smiling, dead faces of Lenin, Hovhannes Tumanian and many other famous personalities is exacerbated by Kamo Nigarian’s astonishing exposition design comprising of pyramids and painted circles. The other home museums are also worth visiting just because of the people they’re associated with: Hovhannes Shiraz, Avetik Isahakian, Mher Mkrtchian and the Aslamazian sisters.
Unfortunately, the two biggest museums are not operating anymore – the city’s gallery and the history museum. These two institutions had extraordinary collections that came second only to Yerevan’s museums. Their closure is a big loss to Gyumri and the fate of their holdings remains a bureaucratic mystery.

Can Gyumri then become a kind of a “museum city” akin to such similar sites in Italy and Germany (Florence, Venice, Dresden, etc…)? From the brief outline above, it is clear that there are wide possibilities for this transformation and since it is unlikely that Gyumri will ever retain its position as a major industrial centre in the region, its future seems to lie squarely within the sphere of cultural tourism. The abundance of well-preserved historical architecture, the numerous cultural institutions and of course, the strategic proximity to both Georgia and Turkey are factors that could transform this city into the true center of cultural tourism which Yerevan is never likely to become.

This vision is not as far-fetched as it might seem. During its Soviet period, Gyumri’s center was proclaimed as a historical-architectural reserve called 'Kumayri' – a kind of architectural museum in itself, which has remained more or less intact after the earthquake. Should a proper development plan be implemented, the 'Kumayri' district can sustain the whole city with jobs by becoming a major tourism and hospitality center. There are already a number of very good hotels in the city and an excellent array of restaurants and authentic pubs or wineries (ginetun) which can satisfy even the most jaded of tourists. Add to it the excellent, summer climate, the lack of noise or pollution and the innate generosity of the locals and you’ve got a winning formula.

Steps are being taken by the local government and independent organizations to turn this idea into a reality. The restoration of Gyumri’s landmark buildings is in full swing, but it’s a painfully long process, overwhelming in its sheer scale and complexity. Of particular importance is the work carried out by Jane Britt Greenwood - an associate dean at the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University. With the help of the international Earthwatch institute, Greenwood’s team carried out detailed examination of Gyumri’s vernacular architecture in 2007. The results of this research will significantly aid any future plans of city’s reconstruction. But the impending doom that hangs above the city’s heritage is not just a vague premonition. As Greenwood states; “if and when the border of Kars and Gyumri opens up, there is going to be a big economic boom in Gyumri. So, that historic district [Kumayri] is at risk of being destroyed through this whole notion of economic development, and if we go through this process of education and documentation and look at restoring some of these structures, we can get a foothold in helping people recognize the value of what they have”.
Indeed, if only people recognized the value of what they had… Yerevan, with its buoyant night life, drowning in a sea of cafes, leaves a resolutely pathetic impression. As you sit in a posh restaurant such as “Old Yerevan” or “Mer Gyughe” with their risible, faux-historic interiors… you come to a realization that in this country, people understand what they had only when they loose it. Eating a “traditional” meal in one of these places is an extremely fake experience akin to a bad spectacle in which you – the customer – plays the central part. All the re-assembled 19th century cutlery, the old carpets, the clay pottery and even the traditional, live music (for which you have to pay of course)… all the effort that has gone into making the restaurants, cafes and hotels feel authentic, while the real thing is being destroyed right next door. In many ways, Yerevan is busy creating a whole culture of false nostalgia, manufacturing the past as a valuable commodity. The irony is so potent that it becomes not just funny but sometimes unbearably tragic.
The same fate unquestionably, threatens Gyumri, especially if proper steps are not taken right now to control the rebuilding of the city. We, as visitors, can play an important role by not thinking of Gyumri as a disaster zone to be avoided but as a major historic and cultural center that is as essential to our understanding of Armenia as the Holy city of Ejmiatsin or even that banal trip to “Garni-Sevan”. Գյումրի, հայկական ճարտարապետություն Վիգեն Գալստյան, արտ նուվո

text & images by Vigen Galstyan ©2008